Nfld. & Labrador

With or without icebreaker, Qajaq can't get through, says coast guard

"We're battling ice conditions that we haven't seen in 30 years," says Minister Steve Crocker.

'We're battling ice conditions that we haven't seen in 30 years,' says Minister Steve Crocker

The MV Qajaq W is a refurbished European vessel, bought by the Newfoundland and Labrador government to replace the aging Apollo on the Strait of Belle Isle. (Submitted)

The new ferry in the Strait of Belle Isle doesn't have the same horsepower as the old Apollo, so even with an ice breaker, it's risky to travel in this year's ice conditions, says the Canadian Coast Guard.

But the province says this year's severe ice conditions are unprecedented, and even an icebreaker got stuck in the thick ice.

The Qajaq W has spent numerous days tied up in the dock, with passengers waiting on either side of the strait for clear conditions to sail.

Coast guard's Henry Larsen is en route to the area and, assuming weather conditions are suitable, will be able to break ice Friday morning.

Coast guard does have concerns with the capability of the vessel.- Brad Durnford

But even with an ice breaker, it's no guarantee the Qajaq will sail, says Brad Durnford, who is with the coast guard.

"The ice conditions are just too severe for this ferry to run. It's a new ferry, it has less power than the Apollo, so we're very cautious, everyone's being very cautious, as they should be," Durnford said.

"Don't want to get that ferry out there and then get stuck for days with people on board, because that's a potential that could happen in this situation."

Qajaq W more 'capable' than Apollo: government

In January, Peter Woodward, president of the Woodward Group, said the Qajaq had half the horsepower and half the carbon footprint of the Apollo, burning half the fuel of the old ferry, but that the Qajaq had two ice-strengthened bows.

Government is defending its new 7,500-horsepower vessel, saying the new vessel is "designed and built to operate in severe sea ice conditions."

Peter Woodward, CEO of the Woodward Group of companies, had previously said the Qajaq had two ice-strengthened bows, but less horsepower. (Alyson Samson/CBC)

The 48-year-old Apollo's horsepower was rated at 9,000 — more than its new replacement — but only "operated at 6,000 horsepower in its later years," reads a statement from the Department of Transportation and Works.

Minister Steve Crocker said even the coast guard's icebreaker Molly Kool, with a horsepower of 18,000, got stuck in the ice this year.

"The fact that it's a newer vessel brings more thrust, so, you know, the reality we have here right now is we're battling ice conditions that we haven't seen in 30 years," Crocker said.

Also, the Qajaq has more agility and ability when compared with the Apollo, Crocker's department said.

"The MV Qajaq W is stronger in ice, has a more durable hull, has better maneuverability," according to the department.

The new vessel has "modern technology that makes it much more efficient and capable than its predecessor," says the statement provided to CBC News. 

The worst ice conditions in 30 years

Durnford and the government do agree on one thing — that the ice this year is incredibly thick.

Conditions are "the worst they have been in 30 years," says the statement from the transportation department.

Durnford acknowledges the ice breakers themselves are having a hard time.

"The ice in the strait, as we've all seen this year, is quite severe. We're seeing conditions that we haven't seen in a number of years," Durnford told CBC's Labrador Morning.

"At the site of the ferry crossing, it's a bottle neck, so all the ice from down south in the gulf is kind of just squeezing up through the Strait, and that's what's causing all this ice pressure that you hear about and why the ferry is not able to follow behind the ice breaker."

'We're all at the mercy of Mother Nature'

Durnford said the ferry's captain is the one who has to weigh the risks each day about whether to chance a sailing.

"Coast guard does have concerns with the capability of the vessel, given its lower horsepower and its ability to follow behind the icebreakers," said Durnford.

The MV Apollo, seen here in 2015, waiting for icebreakers to clear a route through the ice. Government says the Qajaq is stronger in ice than the previous ferry. (CBC)

The Department of Transportation said temporary arrangements to deliver essential food and supplies to some Labrador communities and that government "understands the frustrations of ferry users."

The crews of the Qajaq and the Henry Larsen will make an assessment at first light Friday about whether or not to take the trip. Durnford said that with any luck, and the changing winds in the forecast, he's hopeful pressure will ease up.

But it's no guarantee.

"We're all at the mercy of Mother Nature, and we feel for the people who are stranded there."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning